Migrant Families’ Future in the Hands of a Legendary Lawyer

Peter Schey, immigration lawyer, argued part of Plyler v Doe before the Supreme Court, allowing undocumented children access to schools; now he battle against the Obama administration, challenging the treatment given to Central American mothers and children

Peter Schey, abogado de cientos de batallas en favor de los inmigrantes.
Peter Schey, abogado de cientos de batallas en favor de los inmigrantes.
Foto: Suministrada

Peter Schey has returned to his old tricks again, this time fighting to achieve that Central American mothers who cross the U.S. border with their children, have more rights and, eventually, a fair chance to obtain asylum.

The lawyer, originally from South Africa but living in the United States since a young age, has spent his entire professional life defending the constitutional rights of the weakest groups in this society.

Immigrants — he is also one — have been involved in many of their legal activities, starting with Plyler v Doe, which, in the early 90s, allowed undocumented immigrants to attend public schools.

Schey was one of the lawyers who argued Plyler before the Supreme Court. His record goes over 100 legal cases, collective and civil rights claims, including claims against Proposition 187 in California during the same decade.

At the age of 69, Schey is determined to get achieve one more win, and is gradually making progress. In a recent interview with La Opinion, the lawyer explained the current situation in his battle with the Obama Administration to secure the release of Central American mothers.

“We will continue fighting until President Obama sees the light, and opts to, instead of putting $200 million into the pockets of private corporations that manage prisons for these families, invest a few million to provide them lawyers so they can have a fair trial,” Schey said.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit awarded Schey a victory a few days ago by ruling that migrant children detained with their parents in “family centers” are covered by the same rights as children who arrive alone and that authorities must do everything possible to free them as soon as possible.

A federal court had decided something similar last year, but the government appealed to the higher court, leaving Schey and his associates to keep fighting.

“I think this time the government knows it has very few legal arguments,” Schey said. “Their legal position is frivolous, almost ridiculous. In fact, we have been gradually changing the practice, and at one point, we expect it to change, once and for all.”

When these Central American families first started arriving to the border, their detention in “semi-prisons” was being used as an “example” to prevent other migrants from coming to the United States. The media was supposed to help get that word out.

But what the government didn’t expect was for Schey and his group to keep a watchdog eye on the treatment given to migrant minors, and that as soon as they began to imprison this new wave of migrants, lawyers would get back in action.

Almost Forgotten. Almost.

The election campaign has eclipsed almost entirely an issue that two years ago made national headlines: the arrival of migrant children and their mothers, seeking refuge in the United States due to violence in Central America.

Tens of thousands of migrant children have been alone in recent years, reaching a peak in 2014 and falling in 2015, before spiking again this year, due to the increasing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Countless mothers have also made their way here, and continue to do so with their children, mostly infants, who also escape from gang violence combined with a high percentage of domestic violence.

Upon arriving here, and being arrested, in many cases by the U.S. Border Patrol, unaccompanied minors go through a process required under U.S. law that detains them for a short time, before they seek to reunite them with relatives or a sponsor. They are received in shelters, technically, not considered prisons.

Schey and his colleague, Carlos Holguin, from the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, are primarily responsible that these children do not go to jails or ICE detention centers, and are transferred quickly from immigration custody to the Department of Social Services.

Schey and Holguin sued the U.S. government during the 80s over the treatment of refugee children, using the case of Jenny Lisette Flores, a 15-year-old Salvadoran teenager, as evidence. She was arrested in 1985 when entering the United States — arrested almost like a criminal.

The case was litigated for 9 years and reached the Supreme Court. In 1993 an agreement led to change and improvements in the conditions of the detention of migrant children.

But with the arrival of mothers with infants and minors, the Obama Administration has revived a nearly defunct institution: the detention of families.

Arguing that the children who come with adults do not have the same legal rights as those who come alone, the government decided to lock up these mothers and their children in “special” detention centers while they wait for their asylum case to be heard by a judge.

Schey and his organization came back into the limelight in January 2015, six months after the tremendous “surge” or “increase” in the flow of refugees began, asking that the result of the Flores case be applied in these situations.

In August pf last year, Federal Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the U.S. government could not continue detaining minors for more than 21 days while they wait for their asylum cases with their mothers or fathers and ordered their release before October with “extraordinary exceptions.”

“At first they did not release anyone, they had these mothers detained indefinitely, without access to bail,” Schey said. “Following the order of Judge Gee, they began to release them. The average detention went from several months to about 10 days. Our goal is to release them and provide them with lawyers.”

Schey says that “there is still much to be done” and has asked the court to reinforce the implementation of Flores’ rights, and to appoint an external monitor to watch government actions.

For this lawyer, what the Obama Administration has done with the Central American children and mothers “is a disgrace.”

“They have dedicated themselves to use fear against these vulnerable people; it is a supposedly progressive government that has a blind spot with this theme: they love families except mothers and refugee children. It is a real shame,” Schey says.

The lawyer is also the founder of CASA LIBRE, a shelter for migrant children in Los Angeles.